Burundi withdraws from the ICC: what next for a possible investigation?

On the 26 october 2017, Burundi’s withdrawal from the Rome statute became effective, making it the first State ever to leave the Court. Strangely, there has been no official declaration from either the Court or the OTP at this point.

Al Jazeera reports that : “Burundi’s withdrawal doesn’t affect the preliminary examination of the country’s situation already under way by the court’s prosecutor, ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah told The Associated Press.”.

Moreover, Benjamin Durr got the following email from the Public Affairs unit of the ICC:

ICC reaction to burundi

Despite what some have called the defeaning silence coming from the OTP, the withdrawal is widely commented upon by ICL observers and stakeholders who, for the most part, regret that Burundi has chosen the path of impunity. The withdrawal raises a certain number of legal questions that have been at the heart of discussions on the social media in the past few days and which I want to address briefly here.

  • What happens to the existing preliminary examination?

As is well known, Burundi has been under a preliminary examination by the OTP since April 2015. From a legal perspective, the withdrawal does not affect the preliminary examination. It does not put an end to it automatically, nor does it force the OTP to end it.

The real question is whether the withdrawal affects the possibility for the OTP to actually open a formal investigation at a later stage, which is my next point.

  • Does the withdrawal affect the capacity of the OTP to request the opening of a formal investigation?

The answer to this question depends on the interpretation one adopts of Article 127(2) of the Rome Statute, which provides that:

Its withdrawal shall not affect any cooperation with the Court in connection with criminal investigations and proceedings in relation to which the withdrawing State had a duty to cooperate and which were commenced prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective, nor shall it prejudice in any way the continued consideration of any matter which was already under consideration by the Court prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective.

I should note at this point that I’m assuming that no steps have indeed been taken by the OTP to obtain a decision from a Pre-Trial Chamber to be able to open a formal investigation. There has been some speculation on whether the OTP might have made such a request confidentially. However, this has not been done in the past to my knowledge (Kenya, Georgia, Côte d’Ivoire), and I wonder what would be the justification for that.

If the OTP has indeed proceeding confidentially, then one might very well consider that the pending decision could indeed be a matter under consideration by the Court for the purposes of Article 127(2).

If no steps have been taken, I refer you, for the interpretation of Article 127(2), to the excellent post done by Alex Whiting last year and my own thought on the matter which I published here at the time.

I noted in that respect that:

The key issue is what is covered by the expression “any matter already under consideration by the Court”. Alex Whiting makes the argument that this expression is broad enough to cover preliminary examinations by the OTP. Possibly, he is right from a linguistic point of view. However, I have a difficulty with the idea that such an informal phase as a preliminary examination (which might simply involve an OTP investigator sitting in front of his computer in The Hague downloading HRW and Amnesty International reports) might have such massive consequences as trumping the decision of a State to withdraw from the Rome Statute.

I also noted that:

One last point that could favour a more limited, rather than broad interpretation of Article 127(2), is the formulation used in other versions of the Rome Statute. For example, the French version of the Statute says that: “le retrait n’affecte en rien la poursuite de l’examen des affaires que la Cour avait déjà commencé à examiner avant la date à laquelle il a pris effet”. The word “affaires” (cases) seems narrower that “any matter”. This is obviously not decisive and a comparison in the other official language could be interesting.

I continue to believe that one year later. I don’t believe a PE initiated unilaterally by the OTP, with no particular applicable legal framework and no direct legal consequences can decently be considered as a “matter already under consideration by the Court”. The OTP is not the Court, it is one organ of the Court

[UPDATE: Over at opinio juris, Kevin Jon Heller provides a very useful detailed analysis of whether the “Court” in Article 127(2) refers to the judiciary, or includes the OTP as well. I think he convincingly shows that one cannot assume that Article 127(2) applies to matters under consideration by the OTP, rather than more strictly by the Judges by listing a number of provisions of the Rome Statute where the “Court” refers to the judiciary in a more narrow sense when it comes to procedural matters.]

The OTP is simply doing its basic job of looking at various events going on worldwide to see if actual formal action under the Rome Statute is required. That cannot possibly have as a consequence to negate the effect of Article 127(2). If such a broad interpretation of Article 127(2) were to be adopted, nothing would prevent the OTP from announcing that it is conducting preliminary examinations into all State parties, thus making sure that there would be no legal consequences of a withdrawal whatsoever. That seems a little far fetched.

It should also be noted that nothing prevents the OTP from technically opening an PE into a situation involving a none State party, or even only none State parties. This would arguably be a waste of time, but there is no legal impediment with that. And the reason is that PE don’t have a formal legal existence and, more importantly, do not create obligations on anyone, States included.

Delphine Carlens, of FIDH, with whom I discussed the matter briefly on twitter suggested the following supporting argument:

Article 70 of the Vienna Convention provides that:

Consequences of the termination of a treaty

1. Unless the treaty otherwise provides or the parties otherwise agree, the termination of a treaty under its provisions or in accordance with the present Convention:

(a) releases the parties from any obligation further to perform the treaty;

(b) does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination.

2. If a State denounces or withdraws from a multilateral treaty, paragraph 1 applies in the relations between that State and each of the other parties to the treaty from the date when such denunciation or withdrawal takes effect.

On principle, I very much like the idea of bringing the VCLT into play, because one tends to forget that the Rome Statute is after all a treaty, and does not exist, particularly when it comes to the relationship between States and the international organisation, in a legal vacuum.

My initial reaction here is to consider that the reference to the VCLT might not be very useful. Indeed, it does not help interpret Article 127 per se, because if one agrees with me that the OTP declaring that it is conducting a preliminary examination does not create any “right, obligation or legal situation” under the Rome Statute, then Article 70(1)(b) simply does not apply.

However, on second thought I wonder if I might not be framing the question in wrong terms. Indeed, if one forgets the issue of the existence of a PE for one second, one could wonder if the “legal situation” that was created through the execution of the treaty is not simply the fact that, under Article 12, the ICC would have jurisdiction over crimes committed in the territory of Burundi or by nationals of that State because Burundi was a State party at the time of the commission of the alleged crimes. As a consequence, of this approach the ICC would still have jurisdiction even after withdrawal, irrespective of the existence of a PE or not.

I don’t know if this argument would be persuasive in front of Judges, or would have the support of other State parties. Indeed, Article 127 is a lex specialis on the consequences of withdrawal, a situation which, it could be argued, removes completely the applicability of Article 70 of the VCLT. And because Article 127 makes no mention of surviving jurisdiction, then it might be a little far-fetched to read it back into it.

[UPDATE: Another difficulty that would need to be addressed is the time when jurisdiction is to be determined. Is it determined at the time of the commission of the crimes or at the time of the judicial decision to exercise jurisdiction? This is important to establish, because if it is the latter, then the Burundi withdrawal would in fact remove the capacity for the Court to exercise jurisdiction. Despite the basic nature of the question, I’m not aware of any judicial pronouncements on the matter at the ICC (readers, feel free to point me in the right direction).

Does the wording of the Statute help in any way? To some extent.

Indeed, it should be recalled that through a weird semantic trick, Article 12 turns out to be not strictly a jurisdictional provision: it is titled “preconditions to the exercise of jurisdiction”, which makes it out to be more of a procedural provision that a jurisdictional one. As a result, Article 12 does not actually say that the Court has jurisdiction over crimes committed on the territory of a State party or by a national of a State party, which is what you would expect from a jurisdictional provision. Article 12 says that the Court can only exercise jurisdiction if the State of nationality or the territorial State is a Party to the Statute. This would logically suggest that the adequate time to determine whether the pre-conditions of Article 12 are met, is when the Court is considering exercising jurisdiction, not when the crimes were actually allegedly committed.

I also want to point out that I’m in no way advocating a teleological interpretation of Article 12, or jurisdiction more generally, along the lines that not interpreting it in a certain way would lead to impunity, and therefore would not be acceptable. Whatever some people may think of sovereignty as an archaic concept in international law, it is still a fundamental right of States to decide whether they want to be bound by a treaty or not and I don’t believe that the “fight against impunity” can trump that.]

Despite these difficulties, the jurisdictional approach might be worth a try, as it is somewhat more convincing that the “PE = matter under consideration” approach. Moreover, everybody I know, academics and Judges alike, does consider Article 12 as a jurisdictional clause, despite its clear wording to the contrary. So, even if I’m right, nobody might actually care. Therefore this approach might actually provide the “progressive approach” of the interpretation of the Statute that HRW is calling for.

I should note that I’m not sure this is the argument actually put forward by the FIDH, because it seems to rely, in its press release, on the existence of a PE: “Since proceedings (a preliminary examination in this case) were initiated prior to the date of Burundi’s effective withdrawal, the Prosecutor could request the opening of an investigation into international crimes committed before 27 October 2017 ( Article 127(2) of the ICC Statute)”. So FIDH is welcome to use this new argument from now on!

[UPDATE: i’ve just come accross this analysis from Amnesty International which puts forward the same idea, but still seems to link jurisdiction and the existence of a PE, which I think in fact possibly weakens the argument. And I strongly disagree with the suggestion that a PE creates an obligation to cooperate on the part of States.]

One last note on this: if the Public Affairs email reproduced above is to be believed, it seems that someone at the Court thinks this is a viable interpretation of Article 127(2), when it is said that: ” In accordance with Article 127.2 of the Rome Statute, Burundi’s withdrawal does not affect the jurisdiction of the Court with respect to crimes alleged to have been committed during the time it was a State Party, namely up until 27 October 2017″.

This is a strong position to put forward, and I’m surprised it is not shared officially by someone more “senior” at the Court. Right now, it remains unclear whether this is a shared court-wide position, more particularly if it is the official position of the OTP. Some formal declaration would be welcome in that respect.

  • What about other cooperation obligations which Burundi might have?

It should be noted as an aside that Burundi still has an obligation to cooperate in relation to criminal investigations and proceedings which were commenced prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective.

Which means that if a matter of cooperation arises in any current case or situation at the Court, Burundi would have to cooperate with the ICC, for example in assisting a current investigation.

Arguably, this would also apply in relation to the execution of an arrest warrant, for example of Omar Al Bashir of Sudan. This is of course particularly ironic, given the fact that the withdrawal was surely in part justified on the basis of opposition to that specific arrest warrant…

2 responses to “Burundi withdraws from the ICC: what next for a possible investigation?

  1. Pingback: Piecing the Withdrawal Puzzle: May the ICC still open an investigation in Burundi? | Derecho Internacional Público - www.dipublico.org

  2. Pingback: Peek-A-Boo: ICC authorises investigation in Burundi, some thoughts on legality and cooperation | Spreading the Jam

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